Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apologized for a 1937 massacre in the predominantly Alevi region of Dersim on behalf of the Turkish state, but said the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which was the only political party at the time, is the actual culprit and called on the party's current leader to apologize for the incident on behalf of the CHP.
“Is it me who should apologize or you [CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu]? If there is an apology on behalf of the state and if there is such an opportunity, I can do it and I am apologizing. But if there is someone who should apologize on behalf of the CHP, it is you, as you are from Dersim. You were saying you felt honored to be from Dersim. Now, save your honor,” Erdoğan said during a party meeting on Wednesday.
It was the first official apology from the Turkish government over the killing of thousands of people in the southeastern town of Dersim -- now known as Tunceli as a result of a name change in 1936 -- between 1936 and 1939.
Erdoğan was responding to Kılıçdaroğlu's demands that Turkey must face its past. Kılıçdaroğlu's family is from Tunceli. The notorious massacre took place in 1937 in Dersim, which was historically a semi-autonomous region, as a brutal response to rebellious events. The alleged rebellion was led by Seyyid Rıza, the chief of a Zaza tribe in the region. The Turkish government at the time, led by former CHP leader İsmet İnönü, responded with air strikes and other violent methods of suppression, killing thousands of people.
“Dersim is among the most tragic event in recent history. It is a disaster that should now be questioned with courage. The party that should confront this incident is not the ruling Justice and Development Party [AK Party]. It is the CHP, which is behind this bloody disaster, who should face this incident and its chairman from Tunceli,” Erdoğan said, targeting Kılıçdaroğlu. The two politicians recently clashed over the long-controversial massacre.
Villagers in Dersim are being led by Turkish soldiers to an uknown destination, possibly their spot of execution, in this scene shot on film during the massacre. The image is from the documentary Kara Vagon (The Black Wagon) featuring interviews with survivors’ and their relatives, released in May, 2011.
In the widening debate, Erdoğan said at his party’s group meeting in Parliament on Tuesday that he planned to release a number of state documents about the incident on Wednesday. He then read excerpts from archive documents related to the massacre on Wednesday, saying thousands of people, including women and children, were killed during the Dersim operation and that the CHP was the party of the single-party government of the time.
Referring to a document dated 1939, Erdoğan said a total of 13,806 people were killed in operations carried out against the people of Dersim between 1936 and 1939. He said the document bears the signature of then-Interior Minister Faik Öztrak. Another document Erdoğan revealed related to the Dersim events was a Cabinet decree dated Dec. 23, 1938, which said 11,683 people were deported from Dersim and that 2,000 more were to be deported.
“All of these documents have the signatures of İsmet İnönü,” Erdoğan said, criticizing the current CHP leader for organizing commemoration ceremonies for İnönü but failing to confront the party’s past.
Contacted by Today’s Zaman, Chairman of the Confrontation with the Past Association Cafer Solgun said that the prime minister’s apology is of great value. “An apology coming from the prime minister of Turkey is historical. It was a historical speech. I am excited as a person from Dersim,” he said.
Solgun’s parents were about six or seven years old at the time of the 1937 and 1938 killings in Dersim. In his book, “Alevilerin Kemalizmle İmtihanı” (Alevis’ Test with Kemalism), he questions the relationship between Alevis and Kemalism.
“If Kılıçdaroğlu were not the head of the CHP, his feelings would be similar to mine [after the speech of the prime minister]. But the CHP has a hard time facing the past,” he said.
Cemal Taş, a writer who has been working on collecting oral history in Dersim for the last 20 years, said that it was necessary to call on the CHP to issue an apology as the prime minister did in Wednesday’s speech.
“It was important for us from Dersim to hear that the prime minister does not share the CHP’s views regarding this issue. This was important for us to hear and heals our wounds,” he said.
Regarding what needs to be done after that, Taş said the people of Dersim need to know where the bodies of their sisters, mothers, brothers and fathers are. In addition, he said that they need to be assured of their rights as citizens of Turkey, where work is under way for a new constitution.
According to Şükrü Aslan, a sociologist at İstanbul’s Mimar Sinan University and a writer from Dersim, Erdoğan’s words were important. “It was a first in Turkey for a prime minister to call what happened in Dersim a massacre, and say that it was not a rebellion and was planned well in advance,” he said. “This forces other parties, like the CHP and the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party], to develop new polices about it.” However, he said that the documents that Erdoğan mentioned had previously been in the Turkish press. “What needs to be done is to have the archives of the General Staff opened. This is what the people of Dersim demand,” he stated.
Aslan also said that it would be better if the prime minister had made associations between some people he mentioned, like Celal Bayar, who was the prime minister at the time, and the conservative right. “Because the prime minister associated many people responsible for the Dersim massacre, like Ali Çetinkaya, İsmet İnönü and Şükrü Kaya, with the CHP, it would have been better if he mentioned that some people are associated with the conservative right in Turkey,” he said.
Hüseyin Aygün, a writer and researcher who is also from Dersim, said that, next to the “double-faced” politics of the CHP, the prime minister’s words were significant. “The world has a right to know what happened in Dersim,” he said.
CHP Diyarbakır branch responds to PM’s call, apologizes for Dersim
In an immediate response to Erdoğan’s call to apologize for the killing of thousands of people in Dersim, the CHP’s Diyarbakır branch has announced that they apologize to the people of Dersim.
CHP Diyarbakır provincial branch Chairman Muzaffer Değer said hours after Erdoğan’s call that the prime minister did what the CHP should have done already by apologizing for the Dersim massacre on behalf of the Turkish state. He said the CHP administration should also confront its past and apologize.
However, CHP Deputy Chairman Gürsel Tekin reacted to Erdoğan’s words in a written statement that read: “I congratulate the prime minister. He put dynamite under the basis of unity in our nation and country with his language, style and explanation. He has been successful in creating animosity among the people. We learned our history, thanks to him. What else is left to say? What is the next step for the prime minister? What is the end goal of his campaign?”
‘Sabiha Gökçen Airport should be renamed Seyyid Rıza’
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Muş deputy Sırrı Sakık has demanded that the name of the Sabiha Gökçen Airport be changed to Seyyid Rıza, who allegedly led a rebellion in Dersim as the chief of a Zaza tribe in the region.
Sakık said in Parliament on Tuesday evening that it was inappropriate to name the airport Sabiha Gökçen, who was Atatürk’s adopted daughter and served as a pilot during the bombing of Dersim. “If you want to make peace with Alevis and Kurds, change that name. Our suggestion is to rename the airport’s name to Seyyid Rıza. When you say Sabiha Gökçen, we remember bombs, massacres and genocide,” he said.
“Whatever Hitler means for Jewish people, we have similar feelings toward the people responsible for those times,” Sakık noted.
MHP Manisa deputy Erkan Akçay voiced opposition to Sakık’s suggestion, saying that Gökçen was a “hero,” and adding: “People who have animosity toward Sabiha Gökçen hold animosity toward those who established the republic. Those who ask for the name change regarding Gökçen will ask to change the name of Turkey tomorrow.”